Today’s entertainment industry not only accepts LGBTQ+ celebrities but also celebrates them. But have you ever wondered how pioneer queer artists paved the way for this kind of understanding and representation?
Queer artists have had to face many challenges in the past because society and the entertainment industry alike showed homophobia and discrimination towards gay artists. However, pioneering LGBTQ+ celebrities braved these adversities and gained success.
These trailblazers broke the barriers which allowed today’s queer celebrities to live their authentic selves and enjoy a more inclusive entertainment landscape founded on acceptance and equality. Let’s take a look at the most notable LGBTQ+ figures in history, shall we?
A History with Pride: LGBTQ+
Before we list down the queer legends in history, let’s take a quick journey into how LGBTQ+ representation evolved throughout the decades, and how views toward gay actors and actresses changed as time went by.
Actor and singer Richard Chamberlain, who is now 89 years old, recalls that growing up in the 40s and 50s, being gay simply wasn’t an option so he had to hide his true identity, especially working as an actor.
Early in the 20th century, the Hollywood Production Code was strict about regulating content and prohibited explicit references to homosexuality on screen. If there were LGBTQ+ characters, their identities were ambiguous and were only portrayed through subtext and coded language.
Some notable figures during this period were Tallulah Bankhead and Marlene Dietrich, both actresses, who exhibited androgynous personas and hinted queer identities that subtly challenged societal norms. However, they never directly acknowledged their true identities due to prevailing censorship.
The 60s and 70s
Civil rights and sexual liberation movements were emerging around this time, which led to a shift in how society viewed LGBTQ+ individuals and issues. The movies “The Boys in the Band” (1970) and “Cabaret” (1972) were among the first films to explore queer themes, which showed people a glimpse into the lives and struggles of gay individuals.
The 70s and 80s
Openly gay actor Neil Patrick Harris lived in West Hollywood in the 70s and 80s and was scared to show his true identity early in his career. He recalls driving by Club Rage (a gay nightclub) and Oil Can Harry’s (a gay bar) and wanting to see what went on inside but was afraid of being seen there.
Actor and producer Rupert Everett also remembers what it was like being a gay celebrity during those decades. He recalls that society was slowly showing acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, but AIDS took the gay movement back a lot because people were scared that they would get the disease from gay individuals. He says that he felt ostracized.
The 90s and 2000s
Fortunately, societal views changed late into the 20th century wherein pivotal moments in LGBTQ+ representation were witnessed in the entertainment industry. The film “Philadelphia” (1993) tackled the issue of HIV/AIDS and the famous movie “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) addressed same-sex relationships which helped bring LGBTQ+ stories to the forefront of mainstream cinema.
TV shows such as Will & Grace” (1998) and “Queer as Folk” (2000) came out and challenged stereotypes by having all-out LGBTQ+ characters, which greatly contributed to better understanding and acceptance of the community by society.
Today, we see a diverse LGBTQ+ representation in the industry across entertainment mediums. TV shows like “Pose”, “Orange is the New Black”, and “Modern Family”, which all feature multifaceted gay characters, are well-received and loved.
We have also seen a surge in queer musical artists as well as content creators who use their platforms to represent the community. More importantly, openly gay celebrities such as RuPaul, Ellen Degeneres, Billy Porter, and Janelle Monáe continue to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights for greater diversity, inclusivity, and accurate representation of queer folks within the entertainment industry.
The Most Notable LGBTQ+ Figures in History
When we say “LGBTQ+ celebrities”, we are referring to the queer icons in the entertainment industry. However, we believe that many other queer legends deserve a spot on this list, that’s why we will also include notable figures from different walks of life, from activists to politicians, and more.
Regardless of the industry they’re from, these pioneering LGBTQ+ celebrities have all fought hard and contributed greatly to the freedom that the gay community is experiencing today.
Born George Jorgensen, Christine Jorgensen was a popular actress, nightclub singer, and recording artist in the 1950s. She underwent hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery in Denmark, came back to the United States, and became an instant celebrity. She used her popularity to actively advocate for transgender individuals.
She would spend a lot of time educating and lecturing about transsexuality in many colleges and universities. Christine later authored her own autobiography titled “Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography”, which sold about 450,000 copies.
If you’ve seen the movie “Milk” that stars Sean Penn, then you’ve probably heard about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States. Known to be a visionary, Harvey became a city supervisor and a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977 and immediately worked on addressing anti-LGBTQ+ initiatives.
He sponsored a bill that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations. The bill was passed with a vote of 11-1 and was signed into law by Mayor George Moscone. However, in 1978, Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated by former city supervisor Dan White, who was the sole vote against Milk’s bill.
Harvey Milk only served 11 months in office, but became a lifelong icon in the gay community and an icon in the city of San Francisco. In 2009, over 30 years after his death, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Marsha P. Johnson
Born Malcom Michaels Jr., Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson was a prominent figure in the historic Stonewall riots of 1969 and was one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Movement. She was a sex worker, a drag queen, and a gay liberation and HIV/AIDS activist.
When the riots were over, Johnson became a leader in the LGBTQ+ community. She co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which provided help to young transgenders, homeless LGBTQ+ individuals, and sex workers.
Sadly, Marsha was found dead in the Hudson River in 1992 when she was just 46 years old. Her death was under mysterious circumstances – the police said she committed suicide, but everyone else believed otherwise. Today, she is seen as the “Rosa Parks of the LGBTQ+ movement.”
Another legend dubbed as the Rosa Parks of the gay community is Stormé DeLarverie, biracial butch lesbian who performed as a drag king. She was also a leader in the Stonewall Veterans’ Association. She is best known to be an advocate for lesbians.
She was also a volunteer street patrol worker who worked in downtown Manhattan and was nicknamed the “Guardian of Lesbians in the Village” because she fought hard against discrimination, bullying, and intolerance.
Another LGBTQ+ legend in terms of advocating for lesbian rights is Barbara Gittings. She is known as the mother of the LGBT rights movement. In 1958, she founded the Daughters of Bilitis, the New York chapter of the first lesbian organization in the United States. In the 1960s, she advocated to end discrimination against federal government employees who were gay.
Barbara was passionate about literature and spearheaded The Ladder, the magazine of the Daughters of Bilitis, wherein she wrote about LGBTQ+ advocacies. She was also pivotal in the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental disorder.
Have you ever wondered where the iconic Rainbow Flag comes from? Well, Gilbert Baker is the person you’re looking for. In 1978, Harvey Milk asked his friend Gilbert to create a symbol that would best represent gay pride.
Being a talented designer, Gilbert Baker used the flag of the United States as inspiration and created the rainbow flag. According to him, each color he used represented something important to the gay community. The Pride Flag was first flown for Gay Pride Day in San Francisco on June 25, 1978.
He also founded the Gilbert Baker Foundation. One of its missions is to educate future generations about the Rainbow Flag.
In 2013, Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was overturned and became a historical moment for the LGBTQ+ community, thanks to Edith Windsor. When her wife died in 2009, she was left to pay $363,000 in estate taxes. She sued the federal government and won, which led to the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Chances are, you already know who RuPaul is because of the world-famous “RuPaul’s Drag Race” competition show. Before the show, RuPaul Charles was a singer in the 90s and also appeared in various films in his drag persona. Some of the movies he was in include “Blue in the Face”, “Crooklyn” and “The Brady Bunch Movie”. He has 12 Emmy awards to his name.
RuPaul is best known for pioneering queer representation on television and is believed to be the first to revolutionize the portrayal of queer characters on screen.
Everybody knows Ellen Degeneres, but not everyone knows that she made history when she came out to Time Magazine in 1997 and soon afterward on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She rose to fame and given the opportunity to host her own TV show, which was well-received. Ellen used her popularity as a platform to speak about anti-gay laws and marriage equality.
Today, whether you like her or not, there is no denying that she has greatly contributed to LGBTQ+ visibility and representation and to “humanizing” queer folk in the entertainment industry.
If you’re a fan of the hit TV show “Orange is the New Black”, then you probably know Laverne Cox, who played a transgender inmate named Sophia Burset. This role earned Laverne the first-ever Primetime Emmy nomination for an openly trans actor in 2014.
Three years later, she was cast on “Doubt” where she became the first trans series regular to play a trans character on a TV show. When she’s not acting, she speaks and advocates for transgender rights.
The pioneering LGBTQ+ celebrities in history, no matter what industry they came from, all had to face stereotyping, discrimination, and many other adversities in the past. But they rose above the challenges, broke barriers, and lived their true identities which eventually led to acceptance and understanding of the gay community.
Today, queer celebrities get to enjoy a more welcoming and more inclusive entertainment industry that the pioneers worked so hard to achieve. Without their efforts, societal norms and views wouldn’t have changed.
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